When United States of Al first premiered, it was met with moderate ratings and according to Rotten Tomatoes, “good intentions.” While there was some laughter, the storylines were pretty flat. Instead of a commentary on American society, the writers chose easy jokes and non-controversial topics. Forget the current anti-immigrant rhetoric, let’s joke about haggling over prices in the grocery store.
Despite its limited success, viewers did like the characters. So ABC brought them back this fall for a new season. And the difference has been staggering.
Season 1 ended on a more serious note, with one of the main characters, Riley, finally acknowledging his PTSD and seeking help. However, this new season began with the recent real-life withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.
People may have thought they understood what it was like for the soldiers who had been stationed there. They might have believed they grasped what it was like for Afghani’s trying to leave and why. But viewers got a glimpse of the individuals, their relationships, and what was at stake in a way that news reports could never quite capture. It was a shocking start for the sitcom’s sophomore season.
While Al is safe in America, his sister is still in a country where the new government considers her an enemy for working with the UN and punishable because she is an educated woman who has a job. The first episode follows Al and his adopted American family franticly trying to help her escape Afghanistan over several days despite spotty phone calls, cancelled flights, overwhelming crowds, and an explosion at the airport. Funny, right?
The second episode focused on Al and Riley getting second jobs so they can send money to Al’s sister who is now in a Turkish refugee camp. They become night-time repo men and face crazy scenarios and even violence from angry individuals (surprise) who don’t really want their cars repossessed. Unfortunately, Riley becomes addicted to the same adrenaline rush he used to get in combat. And that ain’t healthy.
This wasn't the way Season 2 was supposed to go. Production had already begun when all hell broke loose in Afghanistan. But the writers chose to pivot and address what was happening. And thus, a new season premiere – that didn’t feel like much of a comedy – was born.
What has followed are authentic and challenging stories without easy happy endings or the canned audience applause viewers expect. After all, if you’re going to write a show about an Afghani immigrant, you’re going to have to acknowledge some ugliness. But there are still moments of levity, hope, and joy.
Because U.S. of Al is still a sitcom – albeit a far cry from The Big Bang Theory or The Goldbergs. The show is finally making a statement. Becoming more than just 30 minutes of simple laughs.
U.S. of Al writers are stepping up with heart and courage. And hopefully, viewers will accept a show that’s not your average comedy. Because while you may not always bust a gut laughing, you’ll leave the United States of Al feeling pretty damn good.